Making “Marble Stories”
By Donald L. Smith, Town and Gown June 1992
As his father guided the chisel through the mazes of an inscription, Eugene thought that his father's work would never be extinguished, that these letters would endure. - Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe
When a social studies class at Houserville Elementary School was asked to write a brief biography of a fictional Civil War character they'd been studying, it was a near-perfect assignment for Brian Dague, for the biography was not to exceed fifteen lines written inside a tombstone-shaped border — and Brian's parents just happen to operate Mayes Memorials.
Mayes Memorials in the 1950s. Courtesy Ron Dague
"When you think of Lemont," says Chris Exarchos, co-owner of The Victorian Manor, "you think of Mayes Memorials." With good reason: Mayes has been in Lemont since 1900 and at its present location, 910 Pike Street, since 1924. It is, according to a 1976 bicentennial history of College Township, the township's oldest continuing business.
Although three generations of the Mayes family conducted the business in Lemont, it started near Houserville in 1880. That's when Jones Berry Mayes, owner of a wagon shop that had belonged to his father, John, decided to expand the business by selling gravestones - or "marble stories" as someone, probably poet Emily Dickinson, called them. For a time, he and George Wasson were partners in the Washington Marble Works. But within a few years George died and Jones Berry changed the name to Houserville Marble Works.
At the turn of the century, he moved the firm to Railroad Street in Lemont near the site of the present post office. "I've done some digging there," says Ron Dague, who owns Mayes Memorials with his wife, Lynda, "and found, about thirty inches down, what is undoubtedly part of the original building's foundation."
Jones Berry, who died in 1923, was known for his rectitude. "He made the Divine teachings of the Bible a guiding rule for his daily life," Bellefonte's Democratic Watchman said in a memorial tribute, and "he was an ardent advocate in the cause of temperance."
He was also the patriarch of a veritable monument-making dynasty. Four of his sons had memorial businesses in Pennsylvania - a fifth worked for a Vermont granite company-and a son-in-law ran a marble works in Bellefonte. The son who took over the Lemont business was L. Frank Mayes.
"As a boy," the township history explains, "Frank worked in ore mines operated by S. A. Brew at a wage of 33-1/3 cents per day. He and two of his brothers earned the tot.al wage of one dollar a day, paid to their father by check on the first of each month .... The sons were [later]. hired out to local farmers for nine months each year and their father collected all of the earnings except an allowance of one dollar per month."
In 1895, Frank drove a dairy wagon for M. M. Keller from Pleasant Gap to Bellefonte, but became a stonecutting apprentice to his father the same year. Later, he divided his time between family-owned firms in Houserville and Howard - the latter having been started in 1898 by his father and an older brother, J. Will Mayes.
In 1901, Frank married Lucy Keller, whose parents, Catherine and George Keller, owned the Houserville woolen mill founded almost 100 years earlier by Jacob Houser. Frank became his father-in-law's business partner, continuing in that role until he took over the Lemont operation after his father semi-retired in 1907, and ran it for the next forty years, at times with his son Ken as a partner.
Although the name Mayes was synonymous with memorials, Frank became even better known as an astute - and amusing - auctioneer. "He was a good conversationalist and very witty," says long-time pilot Sherm Lutz, a friend of Ken's. "He knew a lot of stories about people, and cracked jokes while auctioneering."
After his death in 1946, the Centre Democrat called him "a connoisseur of antiques" and a collector who "could rarely resist placing a bid or two on old clocks, canes, bells, and some types of antique glass." An equally good judge of human nature, "he sometimes laughingly said he could tell at a glance the main characteristics of a stranger." He had conducted sales at most farms in the county and "knew hundreds of countians by their first name."
Jones and Mary Mayes (seated in center) in 1892 with (top row) Jared and Frank, (second row) Thomas, Martha, Charles, William and Etta Bell, and (front) Willis and Mary Maude. Courtesy Ron Dague.
His visibility, coupled with congeniality, helps to explain the success he enjoyed in politics: he was elected county treasurer in 1919, and after a term in that post, served four years as Centre County's GOP chairman.
When Frank died, son Ken returned to Lemont from Williamsport, where he had been purchasing agent for the Darling Valve and Manufacturing Company, and took over the business. Back in 1931, two years after graduating from Penn State with a major in commerce and finance, he had earned a pilot's license in a Texas school of aviation. Before going to Williamsport, he spent time in Niagara Falls, in charge of the Bell Aircraft School for Pilots.
Sherm Lutz recalls flying with Ken, and hoping Ken would work at Sherm's Boalsburg airport. Sherm also remembers Ken's fondness for cars: "He once owned a cream-colored one, and when you saw that car you knew it was Ken." That was an air-cooled 1911 Franklin, which Ken owned along with a 1931 Du Pont open phaeton. His daughter, Sandra Mayes Leitzinger, says he and Paul Houser of Lemont won a trophy with the Franklin in a rally-type race to Philadelphia.
Ken and wife Louise lived in the handsome corner house next to Mayes Memorials, a residence enhanced by roses and other flora that responded to the touch of Louise's green thumb. This was the same place where Frank Mayes had moved his family in 1911, when Ken was four. The Mayes home, currently owned by the Dagues, was built in 1870-71 for Dr. Jared Dale.
In these spacious surroundings, Ken and Louise — who did the bookkeeping and billing while he was busy fashioning gravestones or installing them in cemeteries — reared a son and a daughter. Today, L. Frank Mayes II resides in Georgia, and Sandra Jives in Harris Acres, not far from the Boalsburg Cemetery where her parents and other forebears are buried.
An internationally known water colorist specializing in paintings of race cars and antique autos, Sandra says the sandblasting process used in making tombstones is itself artistic. "It requires a fine eye and a steady hand," she explains. "Watching my dad at work helped in training my eye. When you're sandblasting or chiseling on a stone, you can't correct mistakes. You can't make mistakes while painting with watercolors, either, but it's even more true of preparing tombstones."
Sandra, a Penn State graduate in home economics journalism, says her father "took great pride in being fair in his business dealings. He showed respect for customers and taught us to treat everyone alike. He dealt sensitively with all kinds of people in times of sorrow, and thought it proper to honor the deceased with a stone. And on our visits to cemeteries, he had strict rules about never stepping on graves."
He retired in 1975 and died two years later, a month shy of his seventieth birthday, a victim of silicosis — a lung disease caused by years of inhaling silica dust from stone.
From 1976 to 1981, Mayes Memorials was managed by Ward McCall for the new owners, a consortium of several Central Pennsylvania funeral homes, one of which was owned by Ward's son-in-law. By the end of '81, the firm had been sold to Ron and Lynda Dague - a young couple originally from Reading whose main entrepreneurial experience consisted of starting the Cook's Nook in Calder Square, a business they owned for a year and a half.
"Our accountant knew we were interested in something else," Ron says, "and he told us about Mayes Memorials when he learned it was for sale. After I looked at the books, we talked it over and decided to buy it."
A 1975 Penn State graduate in recreational therapy who worked in psychiatric hospitals for several years, Ron did know a gravestone from a hole in the ground, but he knew nothing about how memorials are made. He says he's always been able to learn just about anything by watching, and his carpenter father had taught him a lot about concrete and woodwork. Prior to opening the Cook's Nook, he had been land-development supervisor for J. Alvin Hawbaker, and later, on his own, helped to build houses.
"Bill Mokle taught us how to do this work," explains Ron. "I don't mean just the mechanics of it, but also the proper attitude toward customers." Bill's mother was a sister of Frank Mayes, and Bill and his father used to own a monument company in Bellefonte. Bill also had done sandblasting and other work for his cousin Ken Mayes. Ron's basic education in the business consisted of working with Bill for several years, plus taking a month-long course at the granite company in Barre, Vermont, that is his principal supplier.
Ron and Rick Snare install a stone at a cemetery in Howard. Courtesy Ron Dague.
Unfinished stones, most weighing about a half ton each, arrive in crates via tractor-trailer. "Dealing mainly with one supplier has its advantages," Ron says. "We know what we're getting, and because the driver is usually the same, he knows how to back in under our crane for unloading."
There are two main types of tombstone: memorials, which represent a tribute to the deceased; and markers, which merely mark a grave. The top and base of a memorial weigh about 1,000 pounds, while smaller markers vary from 150 to 600 pounds.
In the workshop stones are prepared in several stages. The first, known as "steeling off panels," is a form of sandblasting that, for example, readies a portion of a stone's surface to receive a rubber stencil that's cemented to the "steeled panel." Then comes the actual sandblasting process in which compressed air shoots very fine steel abrasives - not sand - at the stone to cut names, dates, and designs through the stencil. Today's stonecutters, Ron points out, do little hand-chiseling.
Stencils are prepared by Lynda according to terms agreed upon by a customer and Ron. He does most of the selling, prepares preliminary sketches for layouts, and shares sandblasting chores with employee Rick Snare. According to Ron, several health precautions are taken. Silica-free abrasive: are used; respirators, safety glasses, and ear protectors are worn; and shape-carvings done by reaching through a protective curtain into the sandblasting room while standing outside using a respirator.
Some stones, Ron says, can be prepared in two or three hours, while others take two or three days. At the cemetery, stones are set on concrete foundations, which must be poured when the ground isn't frozen.
"One thing that will keep us a small business," Ron explains, "is that I go to cemeteries and do all installations myself. I also used to dig and pour all the foundations. I still do some, but Rick does most of that now.
"I like a stone to be level, and I use a four-foot level to check it," he explains. "After a stone is cemented in place, I clean up the site, making sure there are no fingerprints on the stone, reseeding the grass, and so on. And then I usually take a picture. I have a lot in scrapbooks to show customers." Interjects Lynda: "You've taken more pictures of tombstones than you have of the kids!" Their children are Ron Jr., fifteen, and Brian, twelve.
If Ron were in almost any other business, it might be said that he's "wrapped up in his work." Lynda conveys that idea in different terms: "You won't have any trouble getting information out of him. Once he starts talking about his work, he can't stop!"
For relaxation, Ron often joins the morning talkfests at Bill Williams' Barber Shop two doors down Pike Street. "Some days," Bill says, "Lynda has to come over and remind him it's time to get to work. He's a good guy and a hard worker with a nice family.
"I like to fish with Ron because he brings along a suitcase full of snacks; he's always eating. And when we go fishing, he doesn't like anyone else to drive. If somebody else is driving, he gets in the back seat, covers his head with a blanket, and sleeps. Says he can't stand to look."
Lynda Dague prepares a panel to receive a stencil before sandblasting begins. Courtesy Don Smith.
"Easygoing" is how Chris Exarchos describes Ron. Chris and his wife Diane have known the Dagues since the 1970s, when they lived in the same Boalsburg neighborhood. "Ron is not an activist in village affairs; he's more of a behind-the-scenes person," Chris says. "Mayes Memorials is a Lemont institution, and Ron continues the traditions of the Mayes family. He's also very aware that the house is a historical property."
Expressing a similar view is Ilene Glenn, a member of the Lemont Village Association who says she always thought of Ken and Louise Mayes as "the elite." The surviving member of the College Township Bicentennial History Committee, chaired by her late husband Frank, she says, "I'm so glad the Dagues got the house. They've kept it the way it was instead of turning it into apartments or a business."
That both the house and business are in good hands seems apparent to a visitor listening to the Dagues' enthusiastic talk about their craft while watching them practice it. They have built some equipment and maintain all of it in a workshop crowded with dollies bearing stones in various stages of preparation. Besides Rick, the Dagues have one other full-time employee: secretary Myra Lines. After Ron points out they have eighty monuments to get ready in two months, Lynda says, "Ron and I sometimes work till one in the morning."
Demonstrating that not even the tombstone business is set in stone, Lynda and Ron help keep their 112-year-old business alive by adapting as the ancient craft of stone cutting yields to modernization and changing public tastes. One major change concerns the increasing use of computers to generate designs and stencils, some cut by lasers. "You can call or fax orders to a computer outfit for those," Ron explains, "and we are doing that more and more."
Although tombstone styles change through time [see Sandra Nestlerode Hale's article in December '89 T&G], Lynda and Ron agree that most of the ones they make are fairly conservative and use granite in various colors. As for current style preferences, a popular one is the "slant." As the name suggests, the stone has a slanted, or beveled face some customers think is easier to read.
"More and more people want something on stones," Lynda adds. "Examples are pianos, guitars, fish, deer, cabins, hunting lodges, racing cars - and, for a carpenter, a hammer and saw. One customer wanted his wife's signature, a butterfly, and 'Easy Does It' cut into pink granite." And Ron points out that even tombstones featuring scenes painted in color may be purchased.
The most unusual epitaph they've done was one a widow had placed on her husband's stone: "The Last of the Ol, who a." And their most challenging request was for a five foot, four inch cross — the height of the deceased made of a single piece of granite. Such highly specialized or complicated jobs are done at the Vermont granite company.
Bill Mokle taught the Dagues the fine points of making memorials. Courtesy Ron Dague.
Once a memorial is completed, Ron emphasizes, it's important to stand behind the work. If a mistake is made, the Dagues absorb the expense of replacing the stone.
Knocking back a can of soda as the afternoon winds down and an evening of work lies ahead, Ron concludes, "Patience heads the list of qualities required. There's a lot of creativity involved, and 'eye' is very important. Bill Mokle taught me to appreciate quality work, and Lynda shares my pride in carrying on the Mayes tradition.
"When I finish installing a stone in a cemetery, I step back and admire my work," he continues. "Sometimes I say to myself, 'That will last forever.' Well, not forever, which is a long time, but maybe for thousands of years!"